Sven Birkerts

The gates of the Garden of Information have been thrown wide open and there is no keeping up. This might be an ongoing consequence of our original eating of the Tree of Knowledge—along with mortality. I have been among books for most of my life, but I did not know about Gabriel Zaid until I was asked if I would review a book of his translated poems. I said yes, believing that such invitations are often providential. I enjoy responding to writers about whom I have no preconceptions whatsoever. And so when the small blue book arrived in the mail, I deliberately gave it a most cursory once-over, checking out the cover and copyright page, looking past the introduction by Octavio Paz, and then, when a moment right for poetry came, I settled in to read.

I went cover to cover in one sitting. The book is short, as are the poems. And I found I was able to read in that almost completely de-contextualized way that is so rare. For I did not know the man’s position (though I reckoned it must be estimable if Octavio had written the introduction), his other work, his life circumstance—anything. Just these poems on the page, filtered down from Spanish into English by various translators.

The news was just that–fresh off the press, as it were.

Zaid, on the page, is an ecstatic. A metaphysician. He appears to be, in the phrase of Blaise Cendrars, an “astonished man,” seeing as if anew. He expresses his surprise at nature, at being in the midst of being by way of compressed images that, as they reach us, convey the soul’s double-take—and this, I think, can only come from a certain estrangement. The making of such images is an alienation looking to repair itself. An example:

An Abandoned Nocturne *

The secret unsettling

that a fallen leaf

leaves lightly in the air

reaches me.


The inert lucidity

of the deserted park,

the water raving on

in the sleepless fountain.


But you exist no less, communion,

and touch us, intimately,

in words that lead the warp

through the woof of the world.

Part of the charm—and power—of this little poem lies in the fact that we cannot lock it up completely. The suggestions stir us, pull us toward contemplation, but they do not issue in anything we can reliably summarize. “Where there is amenability to paraphrase,” wrote Mandelstam, “there poetry has not spent the night,” and the phrase is apt to Zaid’s work.

The poem reaches us first through its verbs, its depictions of movement. The motion of the falling leaf, which we naturally picture not as a vertical drop so much as a sketchy sashaying. The water in the fountain—not purling, but raving–gives us the sense of an agitation that amplifies the “unsettling”  left on the air by the leaf. And then the complex action of the third stanza: “communion” described as an intimate touching, followed by the action of words leading “the warp/through the woof of the world.” We figure the image in our minds; we catch the visual echo between that swaying of the falling leaf and the interweaving of warp and woof. The first—leaf—is downward, the seasonal emblem of dying, whereas the communion, and the words binding to the world, are renewing and redeeming. Does Zaid intend any religious implication? Or are we to take it as the self joining the world, entering its otherness by way of language?  Can the two senses co-exist? Why not? The poem—like so many of the others—leaves us tipped off our center of balance, wobbling on our axis.

Take another.


Get-Away *

Cut loose the basket.

Let fly the balloons full of kisses.

There goes the world, falling behind.

And the depths in the eyes causes vertigo.

Get screwed in tight.

Let the wind take you.

Cast off the slack, jettison the sand.

Already you’re out into space beyond time.

This is different. Eight lines, each a sentence (in the Spanish as well). The mode is imperative. A set of commands relating, on the face of it, to taking off from earth in an air balloon. But there is that word “kisses” in the second line—warrant, along with the later “depths in the eyes causes vertigo,” to consider all of the injunctions as relating to love, to the letting go of the self in the presence of another. Is this addressed to the world at large, to another person, or is it self-address? We don’t know. And I’m not sure it matters.  What matters is the directional velocity, the feeling of a translation across boundaries, into a new state, whether this is conceived physically, emotionally, or metaphysically.

Again, as with An Abandoned Nocturne, the meanings are driven by the juxtapositions of the various verbs and their actions. If the fist verb is an active imperative—“Cut”—the actions of the seven remaining lines are in one way or another passive, representing one or another kind of giving over, making the poem’s decisive moment, in a sense, its first word. But the action is not completely one-directional. The initial sense of fast upward momentum is countered, stalled for a moment, by the shift in line four. Where it had been the world falling away in the previous line, now it is the image of the depths of a pair of eyes—eyes looked into—which causes a sensation of vertigo, commonly understood as dizzy and downward sensation. The checking motion only amplifies the sense of release, and of ultimate attainment when the bonds of space/time have at last been broken.

All of this is compressed into eight short and relatively simple lines. It is, if I can generalize, Zaid’s mode, or, to abbreviate, his M.O. The subject matters of the 42 poems in this collection vary—some are more lyric, others more spiritual, and still others satiric—but their procedure is recognizably that of a single sensibility. Here is a poet who favors both simple imagistic compression, using for his images mainly the materials of the natural order (though here and there an automobile or an elevator will appear), and the dynamic expansions and shifts of perspective made possible by inventive juxtapositions. The final effect, of the individual poems as well as of the book, is of an outward movement, at times that of slow natural growth and at other times of explosion. It is a momentum of possibility, opening out. Into ____?

When I had finished reading and pondering, I turned to see what Octavio Paz had written (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) in 1976—just down the road from where I am now, but nearly 40 years ago. Paz made as good deal of Zaid’s importance as an intellectual figure, a critic; he noted, too, that he is a Christian, but one whose spiritual inquiry and affinity connects him to other beliefs (Neoplatonism, Buddhism…). Most interesting to me, he characterized the poetry as occupied with estrangement and the feeling of the “other,” those late-century conditions. But then  he went on to observe—and I feel I should give the last word to him, for he has captured it with his characteristic gracious command: “Time, presence, death: love. Zaid is a religious and metaphysical poet, but also—or rather therefore—a poet of love. In his love poems, poetry functions once again as a force with the power to transfigure reality.”

As I wrote, I had not known Zaid—but as his poetry has confirmed for me, we live by moving forward, enlarging our compass.


Sven Birkerts is editor of the journal AGNI. He will publish his tenth book next year with Graywolf Press.

*Translated by George McWhirter

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